Carr's Work Examines Public Parks as Symbols of Democracy

August 07, 2009

Aug. 14, 2009 — Ethan Carr has been intrigued by public parks since he worked as a gardener in New York City's Central Park more than 20 years ago.

Since then, Carr – now a landscape architecture history professor at the University of Virginia – has devoted his career to the history and interpretation of public landscapes in America. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in art history and archaeology at Columbia University, he became New York City's park historian. He then earned a master's degree in landscape architecture at Harvard and a Ph.D. at Edinburgh College of Art.

He worked for eight years as an historian and historical landscape architect for the National Park Service and has worked at other public agencies and private offices. He has written two books on the history of American national parks.

Today, Central Park is again on his mind. Carr is editing the eighth volume of the "Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted," Central Park's co-designer and the man who set the standard for public parks in America.

Carr, editor for the volume, brought this portion of the Olmsted papers project with him when he came to U.Va. in 2007. With associate editor Amanda Gagel and a staff of research assistants, Carr is chronicling the work of a man who not only contributed to the creation of the American urban landscape and molded attitudes about the preservation of open space, but also helped shape American politics, religion and society.

Olmsted was already a successful literary figure when he turned his efforts to park design, having written books about his travels in England and about conditions in antebellum South. He reported for the New York Times and co-founded the journal The Nation.

"If he never became a landscape architect, Olmsted would be considered a moderately important literary figure of his time," Carr said.

In his first foray into park design, Olmsted won the design competition for Central Park along with the British architect Calvert Vaux. The duo coined the term "landscape architecture" for the work they were doing.

"Central Park was the first of its type of any great significance," Carr said.

European royal parks were created by aristocratic governments. Olmsted wondered how the American republic could create parks that reflect democratic political and social values, Carr said. European parks often incorporated a museum or other monumental attraction; Olmsted's designs were based on the idea of experiencing the landscape.

Construction on the park began in 1857 and it quickly entered the popular imagination. In 1865, more than 7 million people visited (today, the number is 25 million), and it was depicted by Currier and Ives and other illustrators. "Other municipalities wanted a park like that," Carr said.

Central Park, and Olmsted's later park designs, exemplified his belief in healthful, beautiful cities. His writings espoused the power of parks to promote health and boost people's spirits, Carr said. Olmsted promoted ideas about "the experience of nature and natural beauty as being essential to the well-being and success of society," Carr said. He also touted the economic benefits of urban parks.

Olmsted went on to create some of the most important landscape designs of the 19th century, including civic parks, campuses and residential communities. He also designed the landscape for the U.S. Capitol grounds and the Chicago World's Fair.

Volume eight of the Olmsted Papers covers his life as he moved from New York to Brookline, Mass., a suburb of Boston, in 1883 to start what Carr described as the "first modern landscape architecture office." In so doing, Olmsted set the standard for the organization of a professional design office as a discipline of ideas and practices to pass on, Carr said.

In Boston, he designed the park system known as the Emerald Necklace, which includes the Back Bay Fens, Riverway, Arnold Arboretum, Franklin Park, Charlesbank and Marine Park. He also collaborated with the influential and acclaimed 19th-century architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

Olmsted wrote letters, reports, newspaper and journal articles explaining what he was doing, and those ideas shaped 19th-century American society.

His son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who was also a partner in his firm, used Olmsted's writings to start the first landscape architecture program at Harvard in 1900. There "the profession moved from an apprenticeship program to an academic model," Carr said.

In 1916, Olmsted's son used ideas from his father's 1865 report to promote legislation that stated the mission of national parks. Olmsted Sr. wrote the never-realized 1865 Yosemite Report after President Abraham Lincoln signed a law setting aside land in the Yosemite Valley for recreational use.

His writings are the intellectual foundation for his design work and his ideas live on, Carr said.

"It's interesting that Olmsted never wrote a textbook on landscape architecture, but he does write nine volumes of letters and reports that represent his work in theory and practice," he said.

"Each volume of the 'Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted' has a major park system or major cause attached to it," Carr said. "There is a real element of advocacy with Olmsted scholarship because Olmsted was such an advocate.

"This is a papers project unlike any other project because it is it used by advocates for public parks," he said. The volume on Central Park was integral to the conservation of the 843-acre park and is the "bible" of the Central Park Conservancy.

It will take another volume as well as an oversized portfolio supplement of plans and drawings to complete the project, for which author Charles E. Beveridgeis series editor. It is, and will continue to be, a valuable resource for researchers, landscape architects and advocates of all parks, Carr said.

The anticipated publication date for the "Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted," volume eight, is 2012.

— By Jane Ford